A Better Man (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #15)

A Better Man (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #15)

Louise Penny



CHAPTER ONE


What’s happened to Clara Morrow? She used to be a great artist. #MorrowSucks

Are you kidding me? They let him back into the S?reté? #S?retéSux

“Merde.”

“Merde?” Myrna Landers looked over her bowl of café au lait at her friend.

“I’m sorry,” said Clara Morrow. “I meant to say fuck. Fuckity fuck fuck.”

“That’s my girl. But why?”

“Can’t you guess?”

“Is Ruth coming?” Myrna looked around the bistro in mock panic. Or maybe not-so-mock.

“Worse.”

“That’s not possible.”

Clara gave Myrna her phone, though the bookstore owner already knew what she’d find.

Before meeting Clara for breakfast, she’d checked her Twitter feed. On the screen, for the world to see, was the quickly cooling body of Clara’s artistic career.

As Myrna read, Clara wrapped her large, paint-stained hands around her mug of hot chocolate, a specialité de la maison, and shifted her eyes from her friend to the mullioned window and the tiny Québec village beyond.

If the phone was an assault, the window was the balm. While perhaps not totally healing, it was at least comforting in its familiarity.

The sky was gray and threatened rain. Or sleet. Ice pellets or snow. The dirt road was covered in slush and mud. There were patches of snow on the sodden grass. Villagers out walking their dogs were clumping around in rubber boots and wrapped in layers of clothing, hoping to keep April away from their skin and out of their bones.

It was not possible. Somehow, having survived another bitterly cold Canadian winter, early spring always got them. It was the damp. And the temperature swings. And the illusion and delusion that it must be milder out, surely, by now.

The forest beyond stood like an army of winter wraiths, skeleton arms dangling, limbs clacking together in the breeze.

Woodsmoke drifted from the old fieldstone, brick, clapboard homes. A signal to some higher power. Send help. Send heat. Send a real spring and not this crapfest of slush and freezing, teasing days. Days of snow and warmth.

April in Québec was a month of cruel contrasts. Of sublime afternoons spent sitting outside in the bright sunshine with a glass of wine, then waking to another foot of snow. A month of muttered curses and mud-caked boots and splattered cars and dogs rolling, then shaking. So that every front entrance was polka-dotted with muck. On the walls. On the ceilings. On the floors. And people.

April in Québec was a climatological shitstorm. A mindfuck of epic proportions.

But what was happening outside the large windows was comforting compared to what was happening on the small screen of Clara’s phone.

Clara’s and Myrna’s armchairs were pulled close to the hearth, where logs popped and sent embers fluttering up the fieldstone chimney. The village bistro smelled of woodsmoke and maple syrup and strong fresh coffee.

Clara Morrow is going through her brown period, Myrna read. To say her latest offerings are shit is to be unfair to effluent. Let’s hope it is just a period, and not the end.

“Oh,” said Myrna. Putting down the phone, she reached for her friend’s hand. “Merde.”



* * *



“Tabernac. Someone from Serious Crimes just sent a link. Listen to this.”

The other agents in the conference room looked over as he read off his cell phone, “This is Armand Gamache’s first day back at the S?reté du Québec after a suspension of nine months following a series of ill-advised and disastrous decisions.”

“Disastrous? That’s bullshit,” said one of the officers.

“Well, it’s bullshit retweeted by hundreds.”

Other agents and inspectors scrambled for their phones, tapping away while glancing out the open door. To make sure …

It was eleven minutes to eight, and members of the homicide department were gathering for the regular Monday-morning meeting to discuss ongoing investigations.

Though there was very little “regular” about this meeting. About this morning. The room was electric with anticipation. Now heightened even further by what was blowing up on their phones.

“Merde,” muttered an agent. “Having achieved the pinnacle of power as Chief Superintendent of the S?reté,” she read, “Gamache promptly abused it. Deliberately allowing catastrophic amounts of opioids onto the streets. After an investigation, he was demoted.”

“They have no idea what they’re talking about. Still, that’s not too bad.”

“It goes on. He should have been fired, at the very least. Probably put on trial and thrown in prison.”

“Oh.”

“That’s insane,” said one of the senior officers, grabbing the phone and reading it for herself. “Who’s writing this crap? They don’t even mention he got the stuff back.”

“Of course they don’t.”

“I hope he doesn’t see it.”

“Are you kidding? He’ll see it.”

The room fell silent, except for the soft clicking from each device. Like the sound of near-dead tree limbs in the breeze.

Words were muttered under their breaths as they read. Words their grandparents had considered sacred but were now profane. Tabernac. Calice. Hostie.

One senior officer put his head in his hands and massaged his temples. Then, dropping them, he reached for his phone. “I’m going to write a rebuttal.”

“Don’t. Better if it comes from the leadership. Chief Superintendent Toussaint will set them straight.”

“She hasn’t yet.”

“She will. She trained under Gamache. She’ll defend him.”

Off in the far corner, one agent was staring at her phone, a deep line forming between her brows.

While the others were pale, she was flushed as she read not a text or tweet but an email.

Though in her mid-forties, Lysette Cloutier was one of the newer recruits to homicide, having been transferred from the S?reté’s accounting department. She’d spent years quietly keeping track of the budget, now surpassing a billion dollars, until Chief Superintendent Gamache had noticed her work and thought she’d be helpful tracking down killers.

While she couldn’t follow a DNA trail or a suspect to save her life, she could follow the money. And that often led to the same place.

Everyone else in that conference room had worked hard to get into the most prestigious department in the S?reté du Québec.

Agent Lysette Cloutier was doing her best to get out. And get back to nice, safe, predictable, understandable numbers. And away from the daily horrors, the physical violence, the emotional chaos of murder.

Cloutier always chose the same seat at these meetings. Making sure her back was to the long whiteboard, on which were tacked photographs.

She considered the email she’d just received, then typed a response and hit send before she had time to reconsider.

“What do you wanna bet some of these tweets are from Beauvoir?” said one of the younger agents.

“You mean Chief Inspector Beauvoir?”

All heads turned to the doorway. And then there was a scramble and a scraping of chairs as everyone got to their feet.

Isabelle Lacoste stood, cane in hand, staring at the young agent. Then her expression softened to a smile as she looked around at the familiar faces.

The last time she’d been in the Monday-morning meeting, she’d chaired it, as head of homicide. Now she entered limping.

Her injuries, though almost healed, were not completely gone. And never would be.

Officers and agents crowded around, welcoming her back, while she tried to explain she wasn’t really back. Promoted to Superintendent, she was in the building for meetings to discuss the timing and conditions of her return to active duty.

But it was no coincidence, everyone in that room knew, that she was there this Monday. Not just any old day. Not just any old meeting.

She took a chair by the head of the table and nodded to the others to retake their seats. Then she looked at the young agent who’d made the comment about Chief Inspector Beauvoir.

“What did you mean by that?”

Her voice was calm, but she sat unnaturally still. Veteran homicide agents who’d served under Chief Inspector Lacoste recognized the look. And almost pitied the foolish young agent who found himself in her crosshairs.

“I mean that we all know Chief Inspector Beauvoir is leaving the S?reté,” he said. “Moving to Paris. But not for another couple of weeks. What happens before then? With Gamache coming back. I’d rather be in a firefight than be Chief Inspector Beauvoir walking into this meeting today. I bet he feels the same way.”

“You’d lose,” said Lacoste.

The room grew quiet.

He’s young and foolish, Lacoste thought. Probably longing for some desperate glory.

She knew this agent had never been in a so-called firefight. Even using the ridiculous phrase gave him away. Anyone who’d actually raised a weapon, sighted another human, and shot. Again, and again. And been shot at. Would never consider that glory, nor call it a firefight.

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